Monday, April 15, 2024

Hop Wilson: Blue Steel from H-Town

 

“Hey, Albert, tell me something: whatever happened to Hop Wilson?” Thus opens a cover of Wilson’s “My Woman’s Got a Black Cat Bone,” from the 1985 Grammy-winning LP Showdown, featuring Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray.

Jimmie Vaughan and Keith Ferguson were wondering the same thing ten years earlier, when Clifford Antone got with them on a booking wishlist session at the maiden Antone’s on Sixth Street. The two T-Birds knew Harding “Hop” Wilson, who soared gritty blues on a honky tonk steel guitar, would be perfect in giving a converted furniture store the juke joint authenticity it craved. Halfway through the 45 of “A Good Woman Is Hard to Find,” Cliff was fully onboard. After opening in July 1975 with Clifton Chenier, Antone gave Ferguson bus fare to Houston to track down ghetto legend “Poppa Hop,” who released highly-collectible singles on the Goldband and Ivory labels from ’58-’61, but hadn’t recorded in almost 15 years.

Keith arrived at his old H-town stompin’ grounds to bad news: Hop Wilson had just passed away at age 54. On Aug. 12, he’d been admitted to the V.A. hospital in a confused state and was diagnosed with brain damage due to lack of oxygen- often indicative of a stroke. He died 15 days later from respiratory arrest. The obit was strictly word-of-mouth for the local juke joint hero who created an otherworldly nightclub scene when he rode his blue, eight-string box like Elmore James on a surfboard.  But while Hop was alive, Peter Guralnick wrote this: “With his deep brooding voice, stunning guitar work, and the overwhelming power of his blues, he is a singer who deserves much wider recognition.” (From the liner notes of the 1970 British reissue LP Houston Ghetto Blues on Mike Leadbitter’s Flyright Records.)

But the gimpy Wilson hated touring, was suspicious of recording contracts and ultimately became taken for granted in his hometown. Driving to Lake Charles, LA in March 1958 to record his scintillating first single “Chicken Stuff” was about as far Hop would go for his career. When he did get a chance for greater exposure, in the 1963 documentary Down Home Music, he was cut after just 15 seconds of screen time because Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie, which produced the film, said Hop’s performance was “lackadaisical.” Wilson had rarely played for whites before- and these were pointing cameras at him.

His kindreds were in Third and Fifth Ward dives like Irene’s, Sallie’s Cafe, Hayes Lounge, the Red Lily Cube and Shady’s Playhouse, where the rule was to keep playing during a stabbing, because you could be next. “I done felt a knife enough by the doctor,” Hop said in 1974. “I don’t reckon he need no drunk jivin’ help.”

His interviewers were a pair of Georgia collectors who heard swampy blues records that made them cry, made them stomp, made them drive to where they were made. The main destination was the Goldband Records complex (which included a TV repair shop) in Lake Charles, to see if they could find any more records by Hop Wilson. But then the duo continued on to the source and were rewarded with an actual concert by Hop and his drummer Ivory Lee Semien at a black club in Houston. Here’s the incredible story told by William Orton Carlton.

“Nobody can play no guitar he’s tuned for himself,” Semien said of Wilson’s non-pedal steel. “His tuning don’t be in no ‘struction book.” Indeed, it’s hard to describe exactly what Wilson’s music is about, so a playlist is provided at the end of this article.

Named after the new President of the United States, Harding Wilson was born April 27, 1921 on a farm in Houston County between Grapeland and Crockett. As a boy he played guitar and harmonica (harp), which gave him his nickname, then as a teenager he found the stringed box on legs that would be his trademark. “First I ever heard a man play blues on a lap-steel guitar was Hop Wilson,” said Smithville native Sonny Rhodes, who also made the switch from standard guitar. Hop may have been inspired by L.C. Robinson of Brenham, whose sister Angeline was married to Blind Willie Johnson (where all Texas slide guitar starts). Most likely, though, Hop just played an instrument that was available to him and never stopped practicing. And as a disabled veteran he just wanted to sit down.

According to the 1930 Census, father Charlie, a farmer, and mother Bernice (1895-1970), who cooked for a white family, moved to the Houston fringetown of Dayton before Hop was 10. By 1940, the parents divorced, with Charlie Sr. moving to Brazoria, while the rest of the family was living on 3025 Drew Street in South Central Houston. That’s where the 1942 draft notice found Harding, who was working at the Majestic Grill on Rusk St. at the time. After four years in the Army, Hop came home to Houston with scars and married a woman named Louise, who would be his wife for 25 years.

It’s not known what Hop did for the next 10 years, aside from a 1949 Gold Star session backing Lightnin’ Hopkins on “Jail House Blues.” But in the ’50s he and Semien- who often traded lead vocals- attracted the attention of talent scout Steve Poncio, whose clients included Eddie Shuler and Goldband. A native of Gonzales, TX, Shuler was a country singer and songwriter who started the label in 1947 mainly to release his own records. But after great success with Iry LeJuene’s Cajun accordion records, “Paper In My Shoe” (1954) by Boozoo Chavis and “Sugar Bee” by Cleveland Crochet, Goldband started becoming known for authentic regional sounds. Then came blues from Guitar Jr., Juke Boy Bonner and Hop Wilson and His Two Buddies (with “Ice Water” on bass).

Goldband can also boast releasing the first record by a 13-year-old Dolly Parton, 1959’s “Puppy Love,” which went nowhere and is now worth an RV on eBay.  Goldband was convenient to the Tennessee teen because her uncle was stationed at the air base near Lake Charles.

Shuler relocated from Texas to Lake Charles in 1942 with a secret: he had spent time in Huntsville on a 1937 armed robbery conviction. When this became known, only this year, one Louisiana music veteran, paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, remarked that Shuler’s stick-up weapon switched to the fountain pen. Though a beloved figure and terrific producer with a great ear, Shuler also took songwriting credit for tunes he didn’t write and was an upper-hand negotiator who controlled the machines that made records and promised fame. Hop had minimal dealings with Shuler, who slapped his name on Hop’s records as a co-writer.

Aside from that first single “Chicken Stuff” b/w “That Wouldn’t Satisfy,” Hop did the rest of his recording in Houston, at Bill Horford’s ACA Studio. After a second single for Goldband, Wilson stayed in-house, releasing the rest of his records (including “My Woman’s Got a Black Cat Bone,” which takes its title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson lyric) on Semien’s Ivory label. Ivory released three singles from Wilson. So, that’s only five singles total.

But Hop Wilson’s entire recorded output has been reissued, mainly on labels from Europe, and much of the previously-unreleased stuff is remarkable. Why, for instance, was the sensationally raw 1958 recording “Rockin’ With Hop” not released until the ’80s? If you want the real blues, as Europeans do more than Americans, no one rocks with true grit like Poppa Hop. Who else can make despair sound like a sad jet at takeoff?

Longtime fan Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones has said he based the slide riff of “Black Limousine” from Tattoo You on Hop Wilson, plus Johnny Winter, who always credited Hop with slide inspiration, covered “Black Cat Bone” on his 1968 debut LP The Progressive Blues Experiment and “That Wouldn’t Satisfy” in 2004. True Texas bluesmen held Poppa Hop in high regard.

The maestro of tender fury is buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Grapeland, less than two miles from where he was born. His instrument may have been a novelty, but It didn’t matter what he played. It’s how he played it. No one can deny that Hop Wilson was a true original!

Hop Wilson Discography

Hop Wilson Playlist

Bonus chapter on Frankie Lee Sims

 

 

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